In Waxwings Jonathan Raban triumphantly transfers the skills of an award-winning travel writer to his second novel. (The first was written 18 years ago.) Like the author, the principal character has moved from Britain to Seattle, ‘where herring gulls were a traffic hazard and all streets led down to the water’. Tom Janeway is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington with a minor reputation for his short radio talks. But this is not the satirical university world of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. Millennium-year America (just before the dotcom bubble bursts and before 9/11) is vividly and amusingly evoked, but the excesses and ambiguities of a society which is both provincial and vibrantly international are observed with tolerant understanding. Raban sees America with an incomer’s clarity and a resident’s affection.
Tom is ‘more a bookworm than a novelist’, most at home among the characters of Victorian fiction whom he studies but also living in the same world as the rest of us, ‘some of the time anyhow’ as a police officer concedes while interviewing him. He is a man to whom things happen. They usually take him rather endearingly by surprise — like his wife’s announcement over a glass of wine that she intends to leave him. Excited by her 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job with on-line realtors Getashack.com, Beth is growing away from him and from the dilapidated, gloomy wooden house in which they live (ranch- style, 1910). He has no idea until that moment that she finds him dreary, bookish and self-absorbed or that she resents his joke (repeated in one of his broadcasts) that her share options are just Swift’s sunbeams extracted from cucumbers.
An illegal immigrant from China — another traveller through America — gives a different perspective on modern America as he moves in and uses Tom’s house as his next step up. Wife gone and five-year-old Finn shuttling between them much as before, Tom finds Chick on his doorstep, offering to reroof the house and rebuild the porch for $5,000 — ‘no papers no tax’ — and somehow finds himself agreeing.
Casual encounters and conversations are the stuff both of travel writing and the novel, and Raban’s ear for the way people speak is a delight. He sounds every register of modern-day American English from immigrant through dotcom real estate to that of the waiter asking a customer to put out his cigarette: ‘Sir, I’m afraid this restaurant is not a smoke-friendly environment.’ I particularly liked the way Chick’s command of language begins to improve as time goes on, and in quite another vein the awfulness of the latter-day Veneerings at a fundraiser boasting of importing stone from India and a ‘very special’ landscape gardener from Romania. And Finn is that rare creature in fiction, an entirely credible small boy.
I began to read Waxwings during a long wait at Heathrow. By the time my twice-delayed flight was called I was so absorbed in this humane, beautifully written novel that I actually had a pang of regret at temporarily having to shut the book.